Standing in line at the local Farmer’s Market holding my fistful of kale, I stared into space, wondering whether planning to have a kale salad for dinner meant I could have kettle corn for breakfast. It seemed reasonable. The woman in front of me paid, and it was my turn.
“Do you have your own bag?”
For once, I had remembered to bring a reusable bag, proving that reaching marginally competent adulthood by middle age was possible.
“Here you go,” I said, handing the greens and the bag to the cashier.
The woman paying for her tomatoes next to me looked up and stared hard.
“I knew it!” she exclaimed. “I knew I recognized you! You’re that little girl from that movie!”
Sometimes, I’m “that little girl from that movie” (The Goodbye Girl, 1977). At other times, I’m “that girl from that show” (Family, 1978-1980). Once in a while, I’m “that girl on that other show,” and I have to explain that I wasn’t on that other show. Sometimes the interested parties argue with me about that, which can get awkward.
If you’re thinking, “Oh God, I have no idea what she’s talking about,” that’s fine. Better than fine, it’s great! I love not being recognized. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that something I did in childhood makes people happy, but the novelty of being a sporadically recognizable former child actor wore off a long time ago.
This might have something to do with my personality. My partner, Daniel, insists that I am—and I quote—an “antisocial freak.” I counter that with “no, I’m a contented introvert,” leading him to suggest that’s precisely how an antisocial freak would describe herself. Either way, it is safe to say I’m the sort of person who would consider being loudly noticed by a stranger in public a thing best avoided, like exposure to SARS or a Jimmy Buffett concert. And yet, when you’ve been in the public eye, no matter how briefly, no matter how long ago, you will be noticed from time to time for the rest of your life. After three decades, you’d think I’d be better at this former child actor thing, but I’m not.
“It’s YOU!” the woman continued to marvel, gazing at me over her pile of tomatoes, then turning to her friend, examining a bunch of beets a foot away.
“Don’t you remember her? She was in that movie, The Goodbye Girl!”
A few people in other lines glanced my way, then remembered they lived in Hollywood and were probably more famous than I was, and went back to their phones.
The beet-examiner peered for a few seconds, then shook her head. Both women had expensively highlighted hair and high-end yoga pants. Tomato Lady wore two-hundred-dollar sandals. Her friend sported a serious diamond. I glanced down at my sweatshirt and noticed an arc of breakfast-era jelly on my sleeve. My baseball cap announced I worked for UPS. Apparently, I had dressed to re-grout my bathroom tiles.
They studied me from two feet away and spoke to each other as if I were behind a glass display case.
“You know,” the first woman insisted, “that movie with Richard Dreyfuss.”
Her friend leaned in and examined me more closely.
“You mean Jaws?” she asked. “Was she in Jaws?”
We all basked in the intrigue-filled silence.
“I don’t think,” I injected, not entirely certain, “there was a little girl in Jaws.”
“Oh!” her friend asked joyfully, “were you in Close Encounters of the Third Kind?”
I was impressed by how many Richard Dreyfuss movies I wasn’t in this woman knew. The first woman rolled her eyes at her friend and said, “Melly! That was Drew Barrymore!”
By now, we all had paid for our vegetables and moved out of the way so the people behind us could continue shopping, but neither woman seemed especially eager to leave. I could smell the kettle-corn vendor just a few feet away but sensed I couldn’t retreat until my résumé was settled to their liking. That’s because while I’m a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, I am also an inveterate pleaser. I don’t rest until everyone is happy. If these women’s lives could be improved, however fractionally, by my standing before them as Exhibit A for their nostalgic detour, well then, stand I would.
After another brief but rich moment of quiet, I offered, “I think Drew Barrymore was in E.T., the other alien movie directed by Steven Spielberg.”
Both women smiled at me in relief. Beet Lady said, “Oh, that’s right. God, she was adorable in that. I just love her.”
“Oh, look!” she said, spotting another well-groomed yoga mom one row over. “It’s Debra!“ She dashed off, leaving me alone with Tomato Lady. I was hoping she’d join her friend, but she had other plans.
“So,” she said. “How are you? What have you been up to?”
She waited expectantly for me to sum up the last 30 years of my life in a few sentences. I mumbled something about having had bangs for a while.
She leaned in. “It’s so good to see how normal you are,” she confided.
As we stared at one another, a dozen examples of how normal I wasn’t danced through my head. For example, if I ever mention that a party I attended was “wonderful,” you can safely assume the hosts had a well‐stocked library where I could hide for most of the evening. If I say the party was “WONDERFUL!”, they also had an affable cat that hid with me. I think nostalgic reminiscence is only slightly less dreadful than extracting my own teeth, and that’s probably not normal either. I also suspected a normal woman wouldn’t leave her house in this outfit. I restrained myself from sharing these sudden observations and went with “thank you?”
This seemed to energize her. She grabbed my arm and, in a single breath, followed up with a rapid-fire salvo: “Did you want to be an actor, or did your parents make you? Are you still acting? Do you have any money left? Did your family spend it all?”
If there are introverts who can tolerate physical contact with strangers, I’m not one of them. In fact, I could barely hear Tomato Lady over my brain shouting, “THERE’S A PERSON YOU DON’T KNOW TOUCHING YOUR ARM! RIGHT THERE! STILL TOUCHING! OH, WILL IT NEVER END?!”
She held my forearm tighter still, and her eyes moistened a bit, possibly at the thought of my parents spending all my money on plain‐wrap bourbon and gambling sprees in Reno.
I whispered, “Actually, I’m fine.” I avoided adding, “Well, right now I would drop my arm like a lizard drops its tail, then run away and grow a new one if only I had that ability.” It seemed this might just have raised more questions.
I was more alarmed by her arm-grasp than the questions about my private life. I’m used to them, which isn’t the same as liking it. When I was an actor, I loved the bit between “Action” and “Cut” but never made my peace with the rest of it: waiting around for work, being judged for things over which I had no control, and the thousand little humiliations that came with the territory.
The worst part of being a public figure, even the world’s most minor one, is you don’t get to have a private life. Twice, when I’ve tried to politely cut one of these conversations short in an attempt to maintain my privacy, a complete stranger has barked, “You should be grateful someone still recognizes you.” I was on television, so I was in their house; it’s reasonable that the human brain thinks someone in your house is your friend.
The irony is that the acting part, which I loved, ended without a peep, but the celebrity part refuses to die. I’m starting to suspect that for the rest of my life, I’ll never not be a teensy bit famous.
“But what’s wrong with that?” the person at the grocery store, flipping through the tabloids, might ask. In this post-Kardashian, Instagram-everything world, a teensy bit of fame isn’t an irritant—it’s a stepping-off point.
Finally, Tomato Lady let go of my arm. Presumably, I was free to go. In my head, I shaped the goodbye which would get me out of there the fastest…maybe “left the oven on”?
She then asked, “Where are you going from here?”
Oh dear Lord, I thought frantically. Is this small talk, an Oprah‐esque musing about my life plans, or is she going to follow me to the hardware store?
Mercifully, whatever carpooling ideas she had were pulverized by her friend who raced towards us, panting, “The meter’s about to run out, and I just saw them giving tickets!”
“I’m sorry, Quinn,” my new best friend said, “but we have to go. It was so nice to meet you though!”
She said this sincerely, and I felt a flash of guilt. Yes, she had invaded my personal boundaries, but she was just excited. If the worst you can say about someone is that she likes your work, she isn’t that big of a problem.
I had almost finished formulating this thought when I was enveloped in a hug. This was like an arm-touch, only happening everywhere at the same time. I’ve had TSA agents touch my body less thoroughly. My body decided I was in danger, and I started to panic-sweat. The woman, her tomatoes, and I formed a slightly damp sandwich.
Modern American culture assumes extroversion is the default setting for human interaction. It looks at us as an undifferentiated mass of life forms, longing for the next new moment in the spotlight, the next boisterous barbeque, or the next holiday party crammed to the rafters. Some of us are indeed like that. But many of us, probably from within days of conception, are hardwired to warm up slowly, need fewer people, and be easily overwhelmed.
But later that morning, I did make at least one new friend who understood me, had no interest in my past, and who seemed to be as introverted as I am: the kettle corn vendor.
“Two large bags, original flavor,” the vendor said softly, briefly making eye contact with me before looking to the next person.
Had I been a completely different person, I could have hugged her.